Day 257: Africa

Sat. 27th April 2013

Dawn over AfricaSo, what time is it? As we wake up on the plane, our bodies are still utterly confused as to what time it is supposed to be. I went to sleep sometime around 4am Taiwan time and woke up around 4am Johannesburg time and the time difference is 6 hours so that possibly means I got 6 hours sleep?? Thank goodness for the lie-flat beds and being greeted by name by the stewardess and offered that all important first cup of tea of the day. This was always going to be the flight where we would be most grateful of flying Business Class and so it turned out to be.

Window shades for the constitutional courtWe have mixed emotions about being in Africa. It is my first time on the continent (if you ignore Morocco, which doesn’t really seem to count). One of my early memories of going out with Janet is her going on safari in Kenya with her folks and coming back with some wonderful stories. I have been promised a dawn balloon safari for 35 years now – it will soon be time to collect on that promise. It also marks the start of the last phase of our trip and one with some big questions in the itinerary (how will we spend a month getting from Victoria Falls on the Zambia / Zimbabwe border to Arusha in Tanzania?) and the big physical challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro (well for some of us!). Those are all questions for later and we have got better at just dealing with one day at a time.

The Gautrain - still looking shiny and new!We are now sufficiently experienced travellers that arriving in a new country is a known quantity – clear immigration, collect bags, find an ATM for some of the new currency, get a SIM for the phone, and head for the bus or train station if there is one. In this case, it is the train station for the still new looking Gautrain that was built for the World Cup back in 2010. We’re heading for Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg, between the airport and the town centre and, more importantly, there is a Hilton hotel there. Over the years, I have accumulated a ‘wodge’ of loyalty points with Hilton and we decided to cash them in for a free night’s stay here. Our first Hilton of our trip and it looks like we made a good choice as our room is ready for us even though we are checking in at 10am and we get upgraded to the Executive floor and access to the Executive Lounge. Woohoo!

Swimming pool at the Sandton HiltonWhilst it is tempting to linger over our (free) morning coffee and muffins we need to head into the city pronto as we need to confirm and collect our train tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Port Elizabeth on the south coast. We had tried to book tickets on the train whilst we were in Borneo (planning ahead!) but the train company didn’t do online booking and even with a Skype phone call, they wouldn’t take our credit card details over the phone – they are only set up for travellers already in South Africa. The best we could get out of them was a promise to hold 2 tickets for us to collect when we arrived.

Not exactly a hive of activity at the Shosholoza Meyl ticket officeIt is simple enough to catch the Gautrain into Park Station in Johannesburg – the hotel even provides a free shuttle to Sandton station – but here we start to see the other side of South Africa. There is clearly a lot more poverty here in this part of town and quite a few private security guards wandering around in their high-visibility jackets. Even getting into the Shosholoza Meyl (train company) ticket office, we had to pass by the security guard.

Street market outside Park Station, Jo'burgUnsurprisingly, there is a problem with the tickets. We always had this pegged as having a high risk of all going pear shaped. It appears that they released one of our two places just this morning and now the train is full. The woman at the ticket desk is perplexed at why only one place was released and, indeed, why it happened at all. After an hours worth of her battling with their computer system (or possibly playing Solitaire) and disappearing off to call their call centre it is not looking very hopeful. Perhaps we are going to have to stay for another night here in Jo’burg and then fly on tomorrow. Then, out of the blue, she says: “we’ve just added a Premier Class(se) service for this train, there’s space, would you like to go Premier Class?” It is about 3 times the price, but still cheaper than flight plus another night’s accommodation and so we sign up for it – though, still not entirely convinced it is going to happen.

Entrance to the old fort on Constitution HillHaving eventually sorted that out, we realise that this is going to be our only opportunity to see any of the sights of Johannesburg. We don’t feel entirely safe here but it is very much broad daylight and less than half a mile from the train station is Constitution Hill – the site of an old prison and fort and now the location of South Africa’s Constitutional Court. This is high up the Trip Advisor list of attractions in Jo’burg and vowing to turn round if we don’t feel safe, we head off.

Stairwells preserved as monumentsIt was absolutely worth the effort (as these things usually turn out to be). The complex was much bigger than we expected it to be and as the name suggests, was on the top of a hill and so gave us some great views out over Jo’burg from the top of the ramparts. There is quite a history to the place – built as a fort by the Dutch, used as a prison by the British and then the Afrikaner (apartheid) regime with a legacy from all three. Nelson Mandela was held here at one point during his years in prison (though he is mostly associated with the prison on Robben Island). We also learned that Mahatma Ghandi was a prisoner here (for protesting against apartheid). Sad to say that I didn’t even know he had been in South Africa.

Solitary confinement cellsMuch of the site you can just wander around but there are also guided tours available where you not only get to see around the remains of the prison blocks but also get to hear some of the background and details of what it was like to be a prisoner here. Both white and black prisoners were held here and both men and women (though in separate blocks). It was no surprise to hear that the blacks were treated much worse than whites nor even that the black warders were in some ways treated worse than white prisoners. Some of the details though didn’t bear thinking about – just 8 showers between 2,000 inmates; or that the food court is just in front of the toilets.

Wooden doors with carved panels representing commitments in the new constitutionThe Constitutional Court tells a much more positive story. It is sited here deliberately, is built out of some of the bricks from the demolished prison and incorporates one of the old stairwells from the prison block as a reminder to keep moving forward. A sign above the court announces its name in the eleven official languages of South Africa and the huge wooden doors are carved with depictions of the key tenets of the new constitution. Its good to see that South Africa is moving forward but it is clear that there is still a long way to go. Too much of the poverty is centred on the black community.

I've no idea how to go about buying one of these, nor of how much money I would need.Our impressions of there being two sides to South Africa is reinforced after we return to Sandton and walk from the station back to our hotel. We had seen the BMW before but what we noticed this time was that it also sold Aston Martin and McLaren cars. I don’t think I have ever seen a McLaren showroom before. Someone in SA has a lot of money – just not any of the people that we saw on the streets on our way up to Constitution Hill.

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